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Waterstones was right to drop its apostrophe

Waterstone's sign

What a furore over one tiny apostrophe – the Daily Mail ranted, Twitter stormed and grammarians fumed – but I think Waterstones was right to drop its apostrophe. Which side of the grammar debate are you on?

Last month, Nikki Whiteman caused a stir here on Which? Conversation by arguing that ‘companies should make ‘less’ grammar mistakes‘.

This was down to a Virgin Active advert that boasted its gyms have ‘more weights’ for ‘less pounds’.

A healthy debate ensued, with some – like Vicky – wholeheartedly on Nikki’s side:

‘The less/fewer mistake is a pet hate of mine! I also saw the Virgin advert you mention, and yes I ranted about it to whoever would listen.’

But others, including Rob Waller, argued that language needs to evolve:

‘Ultimately grammar is about common usage, and changes over time. In effect, if the whole population starts to say ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’, they have voted for it and it is correct. If you go back far enough, ‘an orange’ was ‘a norange’, and there was no such thing as a ‘pea’ just ‘pease’.’

The case of the missing apostrophe

Earlier in the month, Waterstone’s announced that it would be changing its name to Waterstones, as the apostrophe is no longer ‘practical’ in the age of the internet and email.

Grammar enthusiasts were immediately up in arms. ‘It’s just plain wrong,’ said the chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society (which really does exist):

‘It’s grammatically incorrect. If Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s can get it right, then why can’t Waterstones? You would really hope that a bookshop is the last place to be so slapdash with English.’

Meanwhile, outraged customers on Twitter used the hashtag #isnothingsacred. The Daily Mail ranted, as only the Daily Mail can, that ‘the barbarians are at the gates’. And John Humphrys and Michael Rosen discussed the implications on Radio 4. Still, all publicity is good publicity.

Let’s move with the times

I’m a sub editor by profession so I question these issues every day, but I’m with Rob Waller on this one – Waterstones is right to move with the times.

If more people are searching online for Waterstones than Waterstone’s, and the company wants to capitalise on that, why shouldn’t it change its name? It’s in the business of making money after all, and there are few enough bookshops left on the high street as it is.

It’s true that the digital age is having an impact on the way we write and speak, and in time it may affect grammar and punctuation. But languages change no matter how much we wring our hands and stamp our feet – and I suspect we’ll all be quite old before we find out whether Waterstones’ decision really was the beginning of grammatical anarchy.


Noooooooo! I couldn’t resist commenting on this convo – my reaction to dropping the apostrophe was an immediate cringe of pedantic horror. Why would they do such a thing?!

Although by the time I read through to the end of your convo I was swaying – it’s odd that my initial reaction is so emotional, yet all of the reasons for dropping the apostrophe are very rational and sensible. If people are spelling ‘Waterstone’s’ without the apostrophe and it makes sense for the business to drop it, then I probably shouldn’t question it. Am I just old-fashioned? Is it unreasonable to be so pedantic? Maybe.

But without wanting to sound reactionary – will issues such as the ones you mentioned (easier web searching, for instance) mean that we will start to drop more and more punctuation? I’d hate to see the end of things like the possessive apostrophe, which I think adds clarity, and is extremely helpful.

>>> I’d hate to see the end of things like the possessive apostrophe, which I think adds clarity, and is extremely helpful. <<<

Agreed. But as Tim sold his eponymous chain of bookshops some years ago, they are no longer Waterstone's to possess.

Thinking of Boots, Barclays, Lloyds, and Currys, Waterstones is [or is it “are”?] in good company, but Wall’s Ice Cream, Colman’s Mustard, and Smith’s Crisps have all kept their tasty apostrophes. Perhaps there is one rule for the high street and another for the table. Being a DIY supplier, Wickes have broken the rules altogether and chucked away both the additional ‘s’ and the apostrophe [perhaps they were missing from the packet]. I’m with Waterstones on this one and I like their shop’s.



Yes, it was intentional.

Perhaps we should allow companies to do what they like. After all, they do strange things like put capitals in the middle of names of their products. PowerPoint is one of many examples of this strange affectation. Let us focus on the correct use of the apostrophe in written English.

Thanks for letting us know about the Apostrophe Protection Society, Charlotte. They should have contrived to produce a name that included an apostrophe, of course.

So are you now suggesting that the apostrophe should be used before an ‘s’ to make a plural? Just because that what lots of people who never learnt to spell do now?

Waterstone’s (sic) a bookshop should have kept the apostrophe. Many companies use an apostrophe in their name and it doesn’t appear on the internet listing – or on your credit card statement. Perhaps they just needed a lot of publicity?

Stephen Fry can gloat over being able to switch from correct English to playing with words but sadly many people in this country can’t.

” I could have been a judge but I never had the Latin, never had the Latin for the judging.”

“Perhaps we should allow companies to do what they like” – in many cases, yes, but I can think of some horrible examples of where they should not be allowed to do so, e.g. Plumb Center [sic], Drain Center [sic], and Parts Center [sic]. It is beyond me why a UK-based company such as Wolseley plc should name its multiple UK businesses with the national variant spelling of another country.

I once came across material received (no spelling mistake or printing error)
an address at:

Executive Centre Drive, Albany, NY

Don’t think ‘plc’ or ‘Plc’ so beloved of UK-listed
companies used by BAe Systems
as to documents circulating in US.

Jane says:
10 May 2012

Magnificent issues altogether, you simply won a new reader. What could you recommend about your post that you made some days ago? Any certain?

I accept (reluctantly!) that language develops over time, particularly as new inventions give rise to new words and new processes. In such cases, it is reasonable to accept such ‘mutations’.

But there are certain RULES which are nothing to do with developing language – they are simply correct! Apostrophes are there for a reason – usually to indicate possession or missing letters. To omit them, in normal circumstances, is just plain wrong.

As for Waterstones, I suppose it’s up to the company, even though search engines ignore them anyway, so searches for “Waterstones” and “Waterstone’s” will bring up precisely the same results. And I suspect that “Wickes” is simply the name of the company, like “Boots”, and you can’t complain if a company wants to just use its name, rather than a possessive. By the way, is it “Harrod’s” or “Harrods”?

Anyway, I am far more exercised by “their”, “there” and “they’re”!

I accept that Waterstone(‘)s need to change their name for sound business reasons. But it doesn’t mean the start of grammar anarchy.

Punctuation is used for clarity in written English, so their action doesn’t sound the death knell for the correct use of the apostrophe.